PHILADELPHIA -- By the end of this weekend, there could be a new name for the rustic, heretofore peaceful village of Cooperstown, N.Y.: Lasordatown.
This afternoon, Norristown, Pa.'s winningest citizen, Mr. Thomas C. Lasorda, will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. At last count, 38 buses full of people were expected to rampage north to be present for this historic occasion.
"From all indications," said Hall of Fame public relations director Jeff Idelson, "Norristown may be a very barren area Sunday."
Lasorda, who will turn 70 next month, will be inducted with knuckleball king Phil Niekro, the only player elected by the Baseball Writers' Association of America last winter; the late second baseman Nellie Fox, who was elected by the veterans committee with Lasorda; and this year's Negro leagues inductee, the late shortstop Willie Wells.
But while Niekro will have his fans and Fox will attract his share of devotees from his hometown of St. Thomas, Pa., and the Chambersburg area, there is no doubt which of these men will be the crowd favorite.
No one will laugh louder, celebrate better or talk longer on the podium than Lasorda.
"I'll tell you," Lasorda said this year, "I can't find the words to describe what this means to me. This is a very, very emotional time for me. When I got the news that they'd put me in the Hall of Fame, I said to myself, 'Tommy, how can something good like this happen to you?'
"This is unbelievable to me. I've met a lot of Hall of Famers. I've put those guys on pedestals. I've looked up to them with respect and admiration and appreciation for what they've done. And now I'm in that class. I just can't believe I'm in the Hall of Fame."
Only 11 men managed more games than Lasorda's 3,040. Only 12 won more games than the 1,599 he won. And at the time he retired a year ago this week, no manager or coach in any of the four major pro sports had remained at the helm longer than he had.
Lasorda finished first eight times. He went to the World Series four times. He won the Series twice -- in 1981 and 1988. And he managed nine Rookies of the Year, more than any other manager. He is just the 14th man to be elected to the Hall as a manager.
"I know some of the managers in there," he said, "and they were great, great managers. For me to be in that select group, that's very, very hard for me to believe."
Lasorda was elected to the Hall of Fame only seven months after his retirement. It took Niekro five elections by the baseball writers to get the required 75 percent of the vote. He missed by just 32 votes a year ago and by 59 in 1995. But he was named on more than 80 percent of this year's ballots. He's only the second pure knuckleballer ever elected to the Hall. The other was Hoyt Wilhelm, who was inducted in 1985.
Niekro's 318 wins -- collected mostly while pitching for a collection of losing teams in Atlanta -- are the 14th-most all-time, the fifth-most in the past 75 years and the most ever by a knuckleballer.
Fox retired in 1965 and died in 1975, at the age of 48. In 1985, in his final year on the baseball writers' ballot, he missed election by two votes -- the closest margin ever.
A 12-time All-Star, Fox is the 14th second baseman elected to the Hall. He had a .288 career average and holds the record for consecutive games started at second base (798). His widow, Joanne, will accept his plaque.
Wells played 20 years in the Negro leagues, including 1946 with the Baltimore Elite Giants, and was an eight-time All-Star. He is the 10th player elected by the Negro League Committee. Wells died in 1989, and his daughter, Stella, will accept his award.
Induction ceremony: 2: 30 p.m. today
TV: ESPN2 6 p.m. (tape), ESPN 12: 30 a.m. (repeat)
Membership: 232 as of today, with 175 players, 22 pioneers-executives, 14 Negro leaguers, 14 managers and seven umpires
Game: Dodgers vs. Padres, tomorrow afternoon
Today's inductees Phil Niekro: Won 318 games in 24 seasons with the Braves, Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays. Frustrated hitters with a knuckleball he learned from his father. Five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner. Ranks fourth all-time in innings pitched (5,404 1/3 ), eighth in strikeouts (3,342) and 14th in victories. Led National League in innings and complete games four times and in wins twice. Pitched no-hitter against San Diego on Aug. 5, 1973. Manages Colorado Silver Bullets, touring women's team.
Nellie Fox: Scrappy second baseman was the catalyst for the Go-Go White Sox of the 1950s. A 12-time All-Star, was the American League's MVP in 1959, leading the White Sox to their first World Series in 40 years. A .288 career hitter, led AL in hits four times and finished with 2,663 hits, striking out just 216 times in 9,232 at-bats. Won three Gold Gloves and established RTC major-league record, playing 798 consecutive games at second base. Ranks in top 10 all-time among second basemen in games, putouts, assists and fielding percentage.